WBUR Pays Tribute to David Carr

Friends and former colleagues including Jill Abramson, Seth Mnookin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates shared their memories of the late journalist.

BU professor Chris Daly (left) spoke at the WBUR-hosted tribute for David Carr with Jill Abramson, Seth Mnookin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and moderator Christopher Lydon. / Photo by Olga Khvan

It was, as Christopher Lydon, host of WBUR’s Radio Open Source, put it, “another blue Monday” without the appearance of David Carr’s weekly “Media Equation” column in the pages of the New York Times. The acclaimed journalist and beloved Boston University professor passed away last month after collapsing in the Times newsroom.

And yet, on Monday evening, Carr’s voice filled the Tsai Performance Center at BU.

“I’m kind of a pirate, kind of a thug. I’ve done a bunch of terrible things, and yet I’m able to, for the most part, be a decent person,” said Carr in an audio recording that kicked off a tribute event hosted by WBUR in his honor.

The voices of Carr’s BU students followed.

“He was inherently impatient about copy,” one said.

“When he yelled at us, he was right—and it’s hard to fault someone for being right,” said another.

In October, at a different WBUR-sponsored event, Carr had talked about the future of media with former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson. Now, sitting on the same stage without him, Abramson shared her memories of Carr, joined by his longtime friend, writer and MIT professor Seth Mnookin, and his mentee, Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Abramson shared an admiration for Carr’s honesty. While he was fiercely protective of the traditional values of journalism fostered by the Times (as famously exhibited in an altercation with the founders of Vice documented in the film Page One), Carr was not opposed to targeting his employer in the “Media Equation,” just as he did with its competitors when he saw it as necessary.

“That was David. He was going to call them as he saw them,” Abramson said. “He had such a sure sense of what the real deal was in journalism.”

While Lydon, who moderated the conversation, praised Carr as a paradigm worthy of sainthood—surely, there had never been another Times reporter besides him who was memorialized with a photograph above the fold after death, he remarked—Abramson could picture Carr himself laughing at the thought.

“He wasn’t bigger than the Times,” she said. “He was a really great reporter who covered the hell out of the area he knew best about.”

To summarize their relationship, Abramson shared a recent email that Carr sent her after she had made a “devilish” comment concerning one of his “Media Equation” columns.

“You never miss a beat, do you, boss?” he wrote. “I fucking miss you and your big, brass ovaries.”

Mnookin, who befriended Carr after their first meeting in 2000, shared a story that similarly demonstrated his pithy attitude. Carr once accompanied Mnookin and his brother on a fishing trip in Louisiana, during which Carr was also writing a piece on a boat captain. As he watched Carr interview the source and jot down only a word or two every so often, Mnookin’s brother, a “civilian” rather than a journalist, as Carr and Mnookin called him, asked him, “David, are you getting this?”

Carr put his pen down and shifted focus away from one of his reporter’s notebooks. Mnookin joked that they were usually “surgically attached to his hand,” and Carr’s wife would later hand them out to friends at his funeral. “Don’t ever tell me how to do my job,” Mnookin recalled Carr saying to his brother.

But at the same time, every year, Carr would make an hours-long trek to Coney Island, where Mnookin’s brother taught at a middle school, and judge a writing contest for eighth graders.

“That is both so astounding and completely unsurprising,” Mnookin said. “David had the fiercest tribal loyalty out of anyone I’ve ever known.”

Coates, who has stepped in to teach Carr’s journalism class at BU, was familiar with this loyalty as well. He recalled being taken under his wing when Carr was an editor at the Washington City Paper, an alternative weekly in D.C.

“David believed in me when I had nothing. David believed in me when I had turned fucking up into an art, when I had mastered it,” said Coates, who had dropped out of Howard University before Carr hired him as an intern.

Coates recalled one particular day in the newsroom when his mother called, and Carr had insisted on grabbing the phone. “I just want you to know that your son’s here working his ass off,” he told her.

“David never said things like that, and when he did, you had better work your ass off,” Coates said.

Toward the end of the program, Lydon asked, “Who do we trust after David to keep honest and enthusiastic score?”

There would never be another David Carr, Coates said, but he did offer a suggestion. “I think he would tell you to look to yourself,” he said. “He did not believe it was beyond anyone to go out and do work themselves.”

Chris Daly, a journalism professor at BU, stood up in the audience to offer his condolences on behalf of the faculty and student community.

“Students loved him,” Daly said. “We’re still registering what this loss means to us.”

Coates expressed that he’s still registering it as well. “He was my friend, and I adored him terribly,” he said, sharing his uncertainty over how to deal with losing Carr.

“He was a mentor,” someone reminded him, calling out from the audience. “Pay it forward.”